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About Chris Schluep

Chris Schluep spent more than a dozen years editing books in New York before moving west. He takes great pride in reading a wide range of books and connecting interested readers with the books they'll love. Chris lives in Seattle with his wife and son, and he feels like he may have one of the best jobs in the world.

Posts by Chris

The Best Books of September: Part Two

Last week I wrote about the Editors' first five picks in September’s Best Books of the Month and promised to write about the rest of the picks this week. Here they are:

BettyPick #6: If you want to hear straight from the woman who has spent nearly forty years as the legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, Betty Halbreich's I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist is the book for you. Amazon's Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, certainly was interested. As she wrote in her review of the book, "I want this woman who practically invented personal shopping 40-plus years ago to come to my house, analyze my closet – and retool my wardrobe, and, thus, my life." But Nelson points out that there's much more to the story. Halbreich had to recover from a tough marriage, a nervous breakdown, and the forces of the times that were opposed to working women—all before she could reinvent herself. In Nelson's words, "let Halbreich take you back to a time when women wore brooches, men donned hats, and everybody had a guiltless cocktail before dinner."

MandelPick #7: What would it be like to lose everything you have and have ever known? Emily St. John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven asks that question, then it asks another: What would you then try to get back? As Amazon Senior Editor, Neal Thompson, writes, "What’s touching about the world of Station Eleven is its ode to what survived, in particular the music and plays performed for wasteland communities by a roving Shakespeare troupe, the Traveling Symphony, whose members form a wounded family of sorts. The story shifts deftly between the fraught post-apocalyptic world and, twenty years earlier, just before the apocalypse, the death of a famous actor, which has a rippling effect across the decades. It’s heartbreaking to watch the troupe strive for more than mere survival. At once terrible and tender, dark and hopeful, Station Eleven is a tragically beautiful novel that both mourns and mocks the things we cherish."

HobbsPick #8: Jeff Hobbs' nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League doesn't try to hide behind its title. You know from the start how it's going to end. But getting there is where the real story lies. The author, a novelist by trade, was the Yale roommate of Rob Peace, a brilliant kid from Newark who overcame incredible odds to get out of his rough neighborhood and begin to make a life for himself. As you read the book, you grow to love Rob. You will root for him even as you find yourself angry at some of the decisions he makes; and you're there beside Hobbs as he uncovers more and more about his former roommate's life. This is a riveting and heartbreaking read, as Rob Peace seems always to have been on the outside—the resented geek in the hood, and the inner city black man in the Ivy League. For more on how the book about Robert Peace got written, see here.

AtwoodPick #9: She's baaack. Margaret Atwood returns with Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, of which Amazon's Erin Kodicek says, "these tales are fun, which is odd considering the sinister current that runs through many of them." Kodicek points to the stories "Revenant" ("one of three cleverly interconnected tales"), as well as “The Dead Hand Loves You” ("Atwood playfully skewers the horror genre then gleefully indulges in it"), and “Torching the Dusties” ("ominously tongue-in-cheek") as standouts. "Fans of Margaret Atwood will certainly delight in this collection," says Kodicek. "But beware, the Stone Mattress will make groupies of old and new readers alike." 

 

WatersPick #10: Sarah Waters is back, too. the author of Fingersmith and The Little Stranger has written a novel set just after World War I entitled The Paying Guests. The novel settles in with the widowed Mrs. Wray and her 26-year-old daughter, Frances, who pass each day in their home outside London very much like the day before. But Amazon's Kodicek writes, "Take a deep breath as you’re reading, because as soon as you are you lulled into the calm cadence of these lives, the Wray’s tenants—the 'paying guests' they have taken in to help with the bills—turn everything topsy-turvy, and by the novel’s conclusion, you have gone from straight-up period piece, to love story, to edge-of-your-seat crime thriller."

 

PitreDebut Spotlight: Every month, the editors pick a debut writer whose book we loved and who we plan to keep an eye on through the coming years. In September that was Michael Pitre, a marine who served two tours in Iraq and the author of the novel Fives and Twenty-Fives. The title refers to the ground rules a road team follows when bomb searching. As Senior Editor Neal Thompson writes, "When they stop to repair a pothole, they first scan the immediate five meters; a bomb detonated in that circle would obliterate them all. Next they sweep the twenty-five meters in every direction. In putting us right in the heat and the dust, inside the helmets and Kevlar vests that chafe the skin, Michael Pitre shows us that the battlefields of modern warfare are far more complex and bizarre than the American public might imagine." The story is told from three unique perspectives: a platoon leader, his medic, and their American culture-loving Iraqi translator. Thompson writes, "Pitre is a nervy, funny writer, with an ear for dialogue and banter. And he’s not shy about commenting on America’s role in the world, and on the haunted postwar lives of its soldiers." Learn more about Michael Pitre here.

See you again next month. Until then, you can find all of the Amazon Editors' September's Best Books of the Month here.

The Best Books of September: Some Old Friends and Some New Surprises

BoneclocksSeptember’s Best Books of the Month are out, and featured among our Top 10 picks is the #1 book on Amazon right now (the title may be a surprise to some). But first things first:

Spotlight: Our spotlight selection for September is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. There’s something different about the publication of this novel—something that wasn’t there when Mitchell ‘s previous works were published. He’s always been beloved by his fans, but it appears that there are more of them now. Watching the reception of The Bone Clocks is watching a cult writer come to the mainstream.

DeadlywanderingPick #2: Matt Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering is one of those books that makes selecting the Best of the Month a special experience. It’s safe to say that the Amazon editors didn’t see this one coming until they read it. This is a book about one of the first deaths on the highway as a result of texting and driving. In the words of Senior Editor Jon Foro, “This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it." And indeed A Deadly Wandering never flags. It is partly an examination of how technology affects our lives, partly an exploration of a terrible tragedy, partly a story of redemption; and definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

SecretplacePick #3: Tana French’s last novel Broken Harbor was a Best of the Month selection in 2012, so it’s no surprise to see her here again. Of her latest novel, The Secret Place (Book 5 in the Dublin Murder Squad series), Senior Editor Seira Wilson writes, “As in her previous books, just when you think you’ve solved the mystery another curious twist appears and French keeps you guessing right up until the very end.” French is clearly a writer at the top of her game. That she's managed to extend that game for five novels (her first was the smash hit Into the Woods) is especially remarkable.

CosbyPick #4: Despite his immense fame, there has never been a major biography of Bill Cosby until now—a surprise, given his nearly ten-year dominance on NBC, not to mention his many other contributions (my personal favorites: Fat Albert and "Noah"). Sara Nelson, Editorial Director for Amazon Books and Kindle, writes of the book, "the portrait that emerges here is of a guy who has worked tirelessly and earnestly to change the race conversation in this country, one silly bit at a time." Or, if you're familiar with his Noah bit, cubit by cubit.

WhatifPick #5: And now for a slight surprise... Our #5 pick for the Best Books of September is currently #1 on Amazon.com. That book is What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. So who is this guy and what is What If? Munroe is a former robotics researcher who now runs the blog xkcd full-time. As you might gather, the blog provides serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, and it's wildly popular. Apparently quitting the 9 to 5 gig is working out for him. Congratulations, Randall Munroe!

Tune in next week for a quick summary of picks 6 through 10 in September's Best Books of the Month.

Daniel Levitin on Getting Organized, Choosing Priorities, and the Importance of Daydreaming

LevitanDaniel Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is a comprehensive look at the evolution of information, the neurobiology behind how we think, and how we can become better organized in a world of distractions. I reached out to Levitin to learn more about his background and some key points to the book.

Read on for an interview with Daniel Levitin.

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Chris Schluep: Tell us a little about your background.

Daniel Levitan: I dropped out of college as a math major and became an entrepreneur. I started working for a small record company, 415 Records. It was a full time job, but as a start-up, we didn’t have much money — we poured it all back into the company. So during those first few years,  I also worked as a data analyst at AT&T and Wells Fargo Bank (my math background came in handy). That led to me being hired as the executive assistant to Ed Littlefield, who at the time was on the boards of Wells Fargo, General Electric, Chrysler, and Del Monte Foods. I learned a lot from Ed about business, critical thinking, and organization—a lot that found its way into this book.

We built up 415 records over a period of eight years and sold it to Sony in 1989. I then started my own production and consulting company, and consulted to every major record label and a number of rock bands.

I went back to college at Stanford in my 30s to study neuroscience — I wanted to know more about the science behind how the mind works. I received my PhD in 1996 at the University of Oregon and then completed post-doctoral training at Stanford Medical School and UC Berkeley. I started teaching and  running a laboratory at McGill University in 2000. Since 2013, in addition to my work at McGill, I'm the Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI, a new top tier undergraduate program that is part of the Claremont Consortium. This is a very exciting opportunity to put into practice a lot of what neuroscientists have learned about the science of learning.

CS: This is the most complete book about the mind and how to organize it that I’ve ever read. How long have you been working on it?

DL: I've always been fascinated by organizational systems — how record stores arrange their records, how hardware and grocery stores arrange their products, how libraries classify books. So you might say the book has been percolating for many years. The actual writing of the book took four years. Everything I know about the subject is in this book, along with what I've learned along the way about productivity, efficiency, and decision making. Although it may not seem obvious, decision making is related to efficiency: most decision making can be facilitated by more optimally organizing the information at hand.

CS: Why has life become so complex?

DL:  The information explosion is part of it. By some estimates, we humans have generated as much information in the past twenty years as in all of human history before them.

Just one hundred years ago, if you got a PhD in biology, for example, you probably knew as much as anyone in the field knew about it — you were a world class expert. Now, you can get a PhD in biology studying the visual system of the squid and still not know everything that is known about that.

Also, we're being asked to do more. Because of the rise of shadow work — part of a shadow economy of labor that isn't reckoned in the GNP — all of us are doing things that used to be done for us by others: we pump our own gas, make our own airline reservations, bag our own groceries. Think about something as simple as trying to get to the right person in customer service or tech support. It used to be that switchboard operators would route us to the person we needed to speak to. Now we have to navigate ever more complex voice menus.The computer age was supposed to bring us more leisure time. Instead, it allowed companies to offload a lot of the work they used to do in the name of customer service onto customers.

CS: What’s the chief difference between Highly Successful People (HSP) and the rest of us?

DL: The ones I've met don't have different brain structures, as far as I can tell — it's not like they have some module the rest of us lack. It's just that they have a little bit more of some qualities all of us already possess: they're a little bit more focused, a little less distractable, a little more driven. But the chief difference is that they've adopted systems to help them be more efficient, and they guard their time jealously — among other things, they don't spend more time on a project or decision than it is worth. (And by worth, I don't just mean financial worth, but the emotional and physical costs of following certain paths.)

Also, they ask the right questions, which is an underappreciated skill. It's what great leaders do. Why? Because not all questions are equally vital.  Successful people in any domain are able to identify the questions that can push understanding forward.

CS: How can we be more like HSPs?

DL: We can adopt some of the systems that they've devised. They make lists, prioritize tasks throughout the day, practice "productivity hours" where there are no interruptions from phones or email, and they ask the right questions when confronted with new information. There's a lot about asking the right questions in Chapters 6 and 7.

CS: You decry multitasking. How would you convince the many fans of multitasking that they’re using the wrong approach?

DL: As a neuroscientist, I know that we humans are very good at self-delusion. It's always helpful when there are studies that can help separate our intuitions from reality. And the reality is, based on dozens of carefully conducted experiments, we don't actually do several things at once. Instead, we shuffle rapidly among them, one after the other.

Multi-tasking is not always problematic, and sometimes it's necessary. But if you have a serious task to do, you have to hunker down and do it and not a dozen other things.

Part of the illusion is tied into how the brain's reward system works. Everytime we accomplish some task, no matter how small, and every time we learn some new piece of information such as from a social networking newsfeed, our brain doles out a little hit of dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Doing all these little tasks in rapid succession make us feel good. But it's short lived, like a sugar high. And in fact, sugar is part of the story. The brain needs glucose to function — that's the fuel that keeps brain cells firing. Every decision, every small task, every new piece of information, burns precious glucose. After a couple of hours of multi-tasking we feel tired and depleted because we've literally depleted the store of energy in our brains. And we have far less to show for that two hours than we would if we had been uni-tasking.

CS: Procrastination: does everyone do it, and how can we avoid this habit?

DL: Procrastination is a very human tendency. I think we all proscrastinate to some extent. The trick is not to prcorastinate the important tihngs like your annual physical or a diabetes test. But if it's time to replace the furnace filters in your house, and you procrastinate for a week or two, that's really not a big deal.

There are lots of tricks for avoiding procrastination. Perhaps the best is to arrange the external  environment so that temptations reduced. I wrote a lot of this book in public and university libraries and I mindfully did not sign into their wireless system. Having the internet unavailable is a great boon to work. Now of course we need the internet for research and for information. In my case, I simply made a list of things I needed to look up on the internet and looked them up later.

Another trick is to carefully prioritize your To Do list, and identify when your most productive time is. My most productive time used to be after dinner, and I'd stay up until 2 or 3 working intently. For the last ten years it's shifted to early mornings and I get up at 5:30 and go right to my desk and write. The trick is then this: Whatever is most important, make sure that you carefully carve out time to do it during your most productive hours and don't let anything else interfere with those sacred hours.

One thing that we all do is that we imagine what will be the perfect environment or set of circumstances that will allow our creativity to flow and our productive selves to emerge unbridled. Of course this is true to an extent. If you're a painter, you need paint and brushes. If you're a scientist, you need a laboratory. But you can't you let your search for the perfect environment prevent you from actually getting started. You'd be surprised what people get done in less than ideal environments. Just look at the cave paintings of Alta Mira or the great art that came out of concentration camps in World War II. Or of course Tolstoy writing his novels after a grueling day as an office clerk.

My favorite story about this is John Fogerty. He wrote all these great songs about nature — Up Around The Bend, Green River, Born on the Bayou — and he wrote them all from a one bedroom apartment in El Cerrito and Oakland. His imagination was his environment, not the urban landscape.

Another related idea is what my friend Jake Eberts (producer of Gandhi, Dancing With Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy) used to call "eating the frog": find the most unpleasant task you have to do and do it first thing in the morning. If you hate exercise, do it first when  your gumption is highest and you can get it over with.

CS:   Talk about a little about the importance of day dreaming.

DL: Daydreaming is when our thoughts meander from one to another. It tends not to be linear, and it allows us to forge new connections between concepts and ideas that we didn't know were connected. It turns out that daydreaming is the default state of the human brain, and the time when we are apt to be most creative. We've all experienced this. There's a problem we can't solve, we keep coming at it from different angles and finally give up. Then, suddenly, while we're doing something else — usually something relaxing and daydreamy — the solution comes to us. And it's usually a solution that we wouldn't have seen before, one that required connecting things that weren't otherwise connected. That's the daydreaming mode, what neuroscientists call the default mode or the task negative mode of attention (because you're not actively engaged in a task). The first part of The Organized Mind is devoted to sharing what we now know about the brain's attentional system and memory — why we remember some things and not others — and how all of us can use that information to improve our daily lives.

"In the Kingdom of Ice" - An Interview with Author Hampton Sides

IceAuthor Hampton Sides' latest book In the Kingdom of Ice is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of August. Set against the Gilded Age, and following a crew bound for parts unknown, this is a nonfiction account that captures a time and place like few books in recent memory. We caught up with Sides to talk to him about his book... and he shared with us some research materials as well.

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Chris Schluep: When did you first learn about the story of the USS Jeannette?

Hampton Sides: It was in Oslo, Norway, while I was on an assignment for National Geographic about the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who had been engrossed by an earlier U.S. expedition from the 1880s—the Arctic voyage of the USS Jeannette. Even though the Jeannette was a thoroughly American saga, I had never heard of the expedition before. When I dug into the primary literature, I found it to be one of the grittiest, most harrowing stories of adventure and discovery that I’d ever encountered, chock-full of amazing characters. The Jeannette saga was extremely important and universally well-known in its day, but no one I knew had ever heard of it. That’s when I knew there was a book here.

The-Jeannette's-abandonment-depicted-by-maritime-painter-James-Gale-Tyler__Courtesy-of-Vallejo-Maritime-Gallery-of-Newport-Beach-California
The Jeannette's abandonment, depicted by maritime painter James Gale Tyler, courtesy of Vallejo Maritime Gallery of Newport Beach, California

CS: Describe your research. Was there a key piece that made you think "now I know how to frame this book"?

HS: In the early going of my research, I lucked into one of those priceless situations that I think all of us historians dream about: An invitation from a little old lady to come sift through a trunk full of yellowed letters that she had literally rescued from her attic. In this case, the trunk contained the personal papers of Emma De Long, the wife of the Jeannette expedition’s captain, George De Long. Once I read the stuff, I knew that I’d found a powerful new way to frame the book: It was not just an adventure tale, but a love story as well. Emma De Long’s letters to her husband, and his letters to her, are elegant, eloquent, and moving, and as the drama unfolds, they become truly heart-wrenching. Really, that trunk full of papers formed the emotional spine of the book.

CS: How long did it take to complete the book? What were the challenges?

HS: I spent three years on this story. For me, the biggest and most rewarding challenge was physically retracing parts of the voyage. I wanted to follow in the path of the Jeannette—to experience something of what that epic journey was like—so I went to Russian High Arctic and the central coast of Siberia where the men of the Jeannette made landfall. This is some of the most severe and inaccessible terrain on earth, but also hauntingly beautiful. The end of the Cold War and the thinning of the ice brought about by climate change had made it possible to reach many of the places the Jeannette had voyaged, places that had effectively been off-limits for more than a century. My real goal was to find the mountain deep in Siberia’s Lena Delta where the Jeannette survivors buried their comrades. It took me forever, but I finally found the site: Even to this day, it’s called American Mountain.

Lost-in-the-Ice-headline-from-The-New-York-Herald__public-domain
"Lost in the Ice" headline from The New York Herald

CS: An unusual combination of public and private resources went into driving this expedition. Can you talk a little about the conditions that led to the voyage?

HS: The Jeannette was a U.S. navy ship, sailing under naval rules and commanded by naval officers, but the expedition was underwritten by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the millionaire playboy publisher of the New York Herald. Such a relationship would never happen today, but back then the still-nascent U.S. Navy was anemic and cash-starved. Bennett, who had sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa, was looking for another sensational story for his newspaper, so he bankrolled this expedition to reach the North Pole. This hybrid arrangement says a lot about the Gilded Age—about the power of the press in that era, and the stupendous amount of money and influence that could be wielded by a single man. Bennett—a duelist, a sports enthusiast, a womanizer and a famously reckless yachtsman—was an outlandish human being with an iron will, and he had a wallet fat enough to make this all happen.

CS: Do you have a favorite character in the book?

HS: This is mainly the story of 33 explorers living under duress on the ice—and I grew fond of nearly every one of these men, especially the commander, George De Long. But I’m really taken, too, with some of the background characters we meet off the ice. My favorite is Dr. August Petermann, a German eminence who was the world’s preeminent cartographer at the time of the Jeannette voyage. Petermann believed that a warm water basin covered the dome of the planet. He said that all the Jeannette had to do was bust through the ring of Arctic ice and enjoy smooth sailing to the north pole. There wasn’t a shred of evidence for his theory, but no matter: Petermann was eloquent and forceful, and his beautiful maps showed an “Open Polar Sea” that was impossible to dislodge from the public imagination. I went to Petermann’s hometown of Gotha, Germany, and found him to be a fascinatingly gothic character—romantic, eccentric, grandiose, deeply flawed, and ultimately tragic.

CS: Did your work on the book lead you to draw any conclusions about climate change?

HS: Yes. One of the big problems that climate change researchers have grappled with is finding a way to know what the polar ice cap truly looked like a century ago in order to compare it with today's Arctic ice conditions. To understand that, you'd have to go back in history, build a research station, and dangerously trap it in the drifting icepack for years. 

As it happens, the Jeannette kept meticulous records of the ice as it drifted two years, and a thousand miles, across the frozen sea. After the ship sank, De Long's men lugged dozens of heavy meteorological logbooks containing troves of information about the icecap and Arctic weather—the hard-won product of their daily labors for two years. When they reached Siberia's shores four months later, De Long buried those logbooks in the sand, and miraculously, they were later found by Navy rescuers, eventually ending up in the National Archives in Washington, where they've gathered dust for 135 years. Over the past year, however, NOAA scientists have digitized those logbooks, and have been analyzing De Long's data. The story they tell is a sobering one: The polar ice cap, at least in that 1,000-mile swath of the High Arctic, has shrunk, weakened, and thinned far more dramatically than anyone realized.

The-thermometric-gateways-to-the-pole-as-envisioned-by-Silas-Bent__Courtesy-of-NOAA
The thermometric gateways to the pole as envisioned by Silas Bent, Courtesy of NOAA

CS: There’s no question that these men endured extreme tests of survival. In your opinion, does this sort of heroism exist today?

HS: Of course we see amazing examples of heroism all the time. The difference, I think, is that people today—Americans especially—are less willing to put themselves in situations that are virtually guaranteed to produce extreme hardship and death. What floors me is that thousands of people applied to be on the Jeannette, even though everyone knew the ship would become locked in ice and that destruction would probably ensue. Arctic exploration, up until that point, had been one long tale of nearly limitless suffering, yet Americans signed up in droves. It says a lot about how tough and stoic—and yes, heroic— people were in that era. It also says something about the powerful allure of the High North and the essential riddle of the pole. It was a nagging, gnawing obsession: People had to know what was up there.

Siberia's-Lena-River-Delta-with-ice-barrier__Courtesy-of-European-Space-Agency
Siberia's Lena River Delta with ice barrier, Courtesy of European Space Agency

"The Alliance" - Rethinking Employment in a "Free Agent Nation"

TheallianceBusiness is changing. As authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh have noted (and as they note in this interview), we are moving away from business embracing employees as a longterm "family" and entering the realm of "Free Agent Nation." The Alliance is their answer to this change. I found the book to be a fascinating read, and I was happy to be able to ask them some questions about The Alliance.

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1. How has the employer-employee relationship changed over time, and why do you consider it to be broken now?

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a steady shift away from thinking of companies as families and towards what Dan Pink prophetically dubbed “Free Agent Nation.” The metaphor of company-as-family worked as long as companies offered lifetime employment.  Once technological change and globalization made this kind of inflexible arrangement untenable, trying to pretend that companies which treated employees like free agents were still like family forced both managers and employees into being dishonest with each other.

The result of free agency and the lack of honest conversations has been an erosion of trust.  And without trust, neither employer or employee will be willing to make the kind of mutual investment that drives breakthrough results.

2. What can Silicon Valley teach us about the new world of business?

Intentionally or not, Silicon Valley has pioneered a new way for companies and employees to work together.  Rather than making false commitments to lifelong employment, employers and employees come together to form a mutually beneficial alliance between self-interested parties.  Silicon Valley’s famous stock options reflect this approach; the typical vesting schedule of an option grant is four years—long enough to work together to build something of value, short enough to reflect an honest and mutual understanding.

3. Describe the basic idea behind the Alliance?

The alliance is a two-way relationship between independent players that lets company and employee work together toward common goals, even when some of their interests differ.  Manager and employee work together to define a “tour of duty” whose mission, when accomplished, helps transform the employee’s career and the company’s business. The paradox is that recognizing an employee’s independence is what allows the manager to have the honest conversations necessary to rebuild the loyalty and trust that’s been missing from today’s employment relationship.

4. What is the ultimate goal of the Alliance?

The ultimate goal of the alliance is to help company and employee build a deep, mutually beneficial, and lifelong relationship.  When both parties feel comfortable enough to invest and reinvest in each other, they can achieve breakthrough business results.  And even if radical changes in the business environment lead company and employee to end the employment relationship, they can continue to help each other via a corporate alumni network. 

5. You make a point of encouraging networking to solve problems, not just inside the company but out. Aren't there inherent risks in this strategy (like revelation of sensitive information to external parties, or employees being lured away by outside contacts)?

There is always the risk that an employee might reveal sensitive information or be lured away, but this risk is overblown, and pales in comparison to the potential benefits.  Most employees know what information needs to remain secret, and if they don’t, a manager can always specify what can and cannot be shared.  Similarly, most employees are quite aware of their market value.  Here in Silicon Valley, a good software developer might receive dozens of job offers every year.

Meanwhile, the benefits of tapping the collective network intelligence of the company are enormous.  This network intelligence can provide useful information on everything from the competitive landscape to key industry trends—before they hit the trade press.

6. Do you consider the book to be aimed at managers, employees, or both?

Our primary focus is on helping managers find a better way to work with their people.  That’s why we’ve included specific and detailed tips on how to have these honest conversations about values, career goals, and explicit tours of duty.  But we also think the book will be helpful to employees who want to explore a different way of working with their boss.

7. What are some companies that already practice the tenets of the Alliance?

A large number of the principles outlined in The Alliance come from Reid’s own experiences at LinkedIn, many of which we describe in the book.  We also tried to incorporate lessons from other CEOs like John Donahoe at eBay, Brad Smith at Intuit, and Linda Rottenberg at Endeavor.

"Is It Like You Thought It Would Be?" by Diana Gabaldon

OutlanderThe long-awaited adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's beloved Outlander series kicks off August 9th at 9pm ET/PT on Starz. The author shared with us her thoughts on seeing her books come to life...

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Ever since clips and trailers and stills of the new STARZ “Outlander” TV show have been released, people have been eagerly asking me, “So—is it just like you imagined?” “What’s it like to see these people who’ve lived in your head for so long come to life?” “Did you ever imagine it would be like this?”

Frankly, it’s a bit like the scene in Outlander where Claire asks Jamie—immediately after they’ve made love together for the first time (and his first time ever)—“So was it like you thought it would be?” And—after making her promise not to laugh at him, he confesses, “Almost. I didna realize ye did it face to face. I thought ye must do it the back way—like horses, ye ken?”

As in, yes, it’s a lot like I imagined it (“it” being the show itself), and at the same time, quite different. How so?

1. I have friends who are screenwriters, friends who have worked in the film world, and friends who have had films made of their work. Based on everything I’d heard and read, I was expecting to have nothing whatever to do with the production myself. I was familiar with Ron D. Moore’s work, so had high hopes that it would be good, but figured all I could do was cross my fingers.

Instead, I was startled—though very gratified—at the degree of involvement offered me. Ron and his production partner, Maril Davis, came to my house and spent two days with me, talking through ideas, characters, storylines, etc. We were much on the same wavelength, and as the production got underway, they were more than courteous about including me, asking my opinion on things (though they are, of course, under no legal compulsion to take account of it), showing me scripts and footage, inviting me to the set in Scotland and generally making me feel welcome.

MyOwnHeartsBlood2. I always want to roll my eyes when people say, “Isn’t it exciting seeing your characters come to life?”—because as far as I’m concerned, they’ve always been alive. Still, I know what these people mean, and yeah—it is exciting. Is it like I expected?  No, it’s much better…

Everyone has a mental image of what Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall look like. I actually know what they look like. Now, plainly, no actor alive will look exactly like anyone’s mental image of a character, and I certainly didn’t expect the actors chosen for these parts to look “like” my knowledge of Jamie and Claire. And they don’t.

But. Ron and Maril sent me Sam Heughan’s audition tapes, when they cast him as Jamie. Frankly, I had doubts, having seen some IMDB photos of the man…but five seconds in, and it wasn’t Sam, it was Jamie, right there. Amazing!

See, actors do magic, no less than writers do. And beyond certain minimal physical requirements, it doesn’t really matter what they look like—only that they can be the character they play. And every single actor in this show can do that.

3. Now, I do understand what “adaptation” means, and a bit about how one translates text to a visual medium (I used to write comic book scripts for Walt Disney, and have in fact done a graphic novel (The Exile) version of Outlander). But what I didn’t realize was just how engaging a good adaptation could be.

Ron’s adaptation is very faithful to the original story; anyone who’s read Outlander will recognize it instantly. But there are the small changes, the insertions, the moving of scenes for dramatic cohesion—and all together, these “different” touches give the show a constant sense of novelty and discovery. I watch footage, knowing what’s going on—but wanting to know what happens next.

And you can’t ask more of a good story than that.

Bill Gates Sells a Business Book

BusinessadventureWhat's the best business book Bill Gates has read? In a recent article, he named Business Adventures by John Brooks, sending it to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list. (It currently sits at #4.)

The billionaire/philanthropist heard about it from another great reader. "Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: 'It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,' he said. 'I’ll send you my copy.' I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks."

If you're interested in a 1960s collection of New Yorker articles, one that's beloved by two of the richest men in America, you should check it out. I know I'm going to. The only problem is you'll have to wait until September 9th to get the paperback edition--because it was out of print until Gates gave it his Seal of Approval.

 

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

MockingbirdFor fifty years, journalists have trekked to Monroeville, Alabama in search of Harper Lee. Normally, they leave town without even setting eyes on the famous but reclusive author. But in 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills wrote to Harper Lee's older sister, Alice, whom she eventually met. It was the beginning of a long conversation—which Ms. Mills recounts here in this exclusive essay:

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When the Chicago Tribune sent me south on an assignment in 2001 to write about Harper Lee’s hometown, I never imagined the adventure that awaited me. I certainly never imagined that I would meet the author herself. Lee had remained famously, ferociously, private since a few years after her first and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

We like to think we know which questions have the power to change our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? Will you marry? Stay in your hometown? You can weigh those decisions, give them the thought they are due. Then everyday questions come along, and they turn out to carry that power, too. That’s the suspense of life, the serendipity. On that August day, my quick answer to my editor’s simple question, “Want to take a trip?” changed the course of my life and work for more than a decade.

After a nearly a week of talking to people around Monroeville, I knocked on the door of the house where the Lee sisters, Alice and Nelle Harper, lived, never expecting it to open. I had written Alice Lee, the then-89-year-old attorney who served as gatekeeper to her sister, known locally as Nelle, to tell her I would be in town and why.  

Alice opened not only the front door but the door to their lives as well. Soon, to my even greater surprise, I met Nelle. She arranged to come for a conversation at the Best Western where I was staying. From that meeting, a friendship with both sisters began, as did a years-long conversation about their lives and work.

At first slowly, then with increased gusto, Nelle shaped my own work, and how I viewed their town and the South. To the sisters, it was critical that I first understand their region, that I see them in context. Early on Nelle told me “To understand Southerners, you need to understand their ties to their church and their property.” And so I was off on a different kind of assignment, the Lee sisters’ guide to the South. I attended churches of all kinds in their corner of the Bible Belt, interviewed their friends and family, and took long drives with them through the small towns and rural areas they knew growing up. 

Marja-Mills-Chris-Popio-(2)My newspaper story ran in 2002 and I was on to other topics, while staying in touch with the sisters. My struggles with lupus made daily reporting increasingly difficult, however, and eventually it became clear I would have to find another way to work. In the fall of 2004, with the sisters’ blessing, I began renting the house next door to theirs to work on what became my memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.

The Lees were ready to share more of their stories. Share them they did, on long country drives, on leisurely afternoons at their home and, with Nelle, often over afternoon coffee at McDonald’s or Burger King. “I know what you can call your book,” Nelle told me over one such coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air. “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delaney Sisters but titles aren’t copyrightable.’” Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years was a bestselling book about two African American sisters reflecting on their lives.

The Lees fascinated me as sisters. Alice was the oldest of four siblings. Nelle was the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, as much mother to her as sister.  Neither married or had children but in other ways they took very different paths.  Alice lived most of her life in their small hometown.  Nelle moved to New York as a young woman and stayed, eventually dividing her time between Manhattan and Monroeville. Alice was petite. Nelle wasn't. Alice wore only skirts, even on the week-ends. (Nelle referred to her as “Atticus in a Skirt.”) Nelle made casual pants and shirts her daily uniform. Alice worked at her law office until she was 100 years old. After the success of her novel, Nelle never held a traditional job. The never-ending press of interest in Nelle and the novel, however, was work in itself.  

The Lees didn't make big concessions to modern technology and conveniences, either. If a routine worked, they stuck with it. Nelle and I did laundry together at a Laundromat the next town over. The sisters faxed because Alice's hearing made using the phone impossible. But computers were not in the picture. Nelle used a manual typewriter to answer some of the correspondence that still poured into their post office box.

For all the sisters told me about their lives, I learned as much simply from seeing how they lived them: with a passion for books and history, church and community, friendship and family, and very little interest in material things. Television they had little time for, except when it came to football and golf. Their modest red brick house in Monroeville overflowed with books, but when it came to things such as wardrobes and furniture, they found simple things that worked for them and stuck with the same for decades.   

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes, and it was illuminating to see how they went about their day to day life in Monroeville. Both Nelle and Alice spent their time on books and friends, and, when it came to money, you would never know Nelle’s novel had brought her wealth. They did donate, quietly and generously, to church and education funds and various charities.

I am so much richer for my time with them. Spending time with these fascinating, intelligent, witty women was a lesson in living life on your own terms. They valued words far more than wealth--and their daily lives reflected that.

I’m reminded of a story Alice told me. When Nelle was studying in England in the 1940s, one of the Oxford boys she knew was going to London because he had a letter of introduction to a member of Parliament. “Something had happened that his girl couldn’t go,” Alice said, “and he asked Nelle Harper if she’d like to go. And she went. I think maybe they bicycled all the way in but, you know, it’s not far. And they were having tea on the terrace and this man who was hosting them excused himself from the table for a short time and returned with somebody.” Alice paused and looked at me with the relish of a cook about to serve a delicious dish. “And that somebody was Winston Churchill.” She continued, “Nelle Harper was so shocked and so overcome she couldn’t remember what she said. . . . Nelle Harper’s letter back home [to us] said, ‘Today I met history. I met history itself.’  

When I think of my time with the Lees in Monroeville, I feel the same way.

-- Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

(Photo credit: Chris Popio)

A Debut to Remember: Celeste Ng's "Everything I Never Told You"

CelesteNgOne of my favorite books of the year is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading it, but I'd heard good things about the novel, and it quickly drew me in. In the end, I tore right through it. As I say in this interview, there isn't a false note in the book.

I only hope that my praise for Celeste Ng's debut doesn't raise the bar so high that it can't meet readers' expectations.

Here's my interview with Celeste Ng:

 

A Conversation with James Browning, Author of "The Fracking King"

James Browning's The Fracking King is an engaging story about a high school junior named Winston Crwth. "Win," as he's called, is at Pennsylvania's Hale Academy (his third school in as many years), and he's there on a "Dark Scholarship" (paid for by the fracking concern, Dark Oil & Gas). He's also a big Scrabble fan.

Browning populates his novel with quirky, memorable characters, and he does a fine job of combining Scrabble, boarding school, and fracking to create a story that's both entertaining and provocative. The Amazon Editors liked it so much, we picked it as a July Best Book of the Month

FrackingKingI had the pleasure of talking to author James Browning, who aside from being an author, is a spokesman and chief strategist for Common Cause, a government watchdog group:

Chris Schluep: First of all, are you a scrabble fanatic?

James Browning: Scrabble was the only game at which I could beat my step-father, a man who believed that children should be “seen and not heard.” I also played constantly with my mother, and my brother and I played about 300 games one summer when we were supposed to be painting our father’s house in Palo Alto, California.

CS: Can you tell me where the idea for the novel came from?

JB: The novel was mainly inspired by a meeting I had in Harrisburg in 2008, with a legislative aide who looked like Bartleby the Scrivener. He warned me not to use the “c-word” in Harrisburg—by which he meant “corruption”—which was a pretty amazing thing to say because the whole point of my job with Common Cause was fighting government corruption.

This meeting and the feeling I got while working in the state capitol—that I was stuck in some lost novel by George Orwell—gave me a real sense of urgency and feeling of responsibility as I began to look at the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Winston Crwth’s own journey to boarding school and then to Harrisburg is also the story of the power of a single word, “fracking,” in the hands of the right person. 

CS:  How long did it take you to write the book?

JB:About two years, but I’ve been writing fiction and hoping to publish a novel for a long time. I wrote a different Scrabble novel back in 1998 when I was in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—a story of Scrabble and doomed love.

CS: Why did you choose to set it in a boarding school?

JB: Boarding school is the thing that woke me up politically—as much because I believed in non sibi, “not for self,” the motto of Phillips Academy Andover, but also because of a lingering sense of shame that I did nothing when several of the not-rich kids in my dorm were expelled for breaking school rules for the second or third time, when the rich kids seemed to get four, five, or more chances.

CS: Are you afraid that it will be seen as "just a Fracking novel"? Because it isn't.

JB: The Fracking King can be read as a fracking novel, or a Scrabble novel, or a novel about a kid trying to survive high school. Or as I told my oldest son, a budding icthyologist, the book is like a cuttlefish, which can change colors to look like sand, a rock, a snake.

CS: What's next for you?

JB: I’m writing a novel about reading for the blind, a sort of older sibling to The Fracking King.

I used to work as the night manager at a studio that recorded textbooks for blind and dyslexic students and it was my job to catch any mistakes before these tapes were sent to the master library. The readers were wonderful, very dedicated, and would describe things like the “honeycomb” shape of certain molecules in a way that a blind person could imagine running their hands along the inside of the molecule.

Many years later, I’m still remembering mistakes that got by me, that got by all of us, and which were then copied and sent to who knows how many listeners. The new novel imagines what would happen if some of those mistakes were sent into the world and accepted as reality—and how you would try to fix them.

 

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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